Death and Love in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

According to Sigmund Freud’s theories, all of human instincts, energies, and motivations derive from two drives, the sexual and the death drives - Death and Love in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” introduction. The sexual drive initiates self-preservation and erotic instincts, while the death drive moves toward self-destruction and aggression. The death drive contains the individual’s unconscious desire to die, which implies seeking the destruction of the sexual drive. This is why, acording to Stephen P. Thornton, “Freud gave sexual drives an importance and centrality in human life, human actions, and human behavior” (Thornton).

Thus, In Freudian terms, every decision and feeling that we have can be traced back to one of these drives and both together make us human. In Walt Whitman’s “Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” we witness the internal and external connection and struggle of love and death (Eros and Thanatos), and their creative result, complex and beautiful verses. Walt Whitman’s “Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is on a basic level a reminiscent story of Whitman as a child on the beach who listens to the songs of birds and of the sea.

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However, this long poem is also about the connection between nature and the poet, a reflection on the endless cycle of love (or life) and death, the death of innocence and, for Whitman, the inevitable birth of a poet. Whitman’s poem begins with the narrator introducing himself and remembering the sorrows of a night from his childhood. The reader is then introduced to two other characters a “he-bird” and a “she-bird” that are in love and singing. Soon after the bird’s first song the boy sees that the she-bird has gone missing and hasn’t returned for days.

In a desperate attempt to contact his lost love the bird sings a beautiful song to the land, the moon “heavy with love” (76), the stars, and the sea. The boy watches and listens to the pain of love and death expressed in the bird’s song and he questions the sea for the reason to why this pain exists. The answer he receives from the sea is the same repetitive message, “the low and delicious word death” (168). Hearing this painful song and the sea’s constant response brings the boy to his own experience, he begins to eel the pain himself releasing within him a flood of emotions which result in his awakening into maturity and his destiny as a poet: “For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,/ Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake” (146-147). From this beautiful song of love and death “Whitman derives an intense and somber lesson in mortality and inspiration” (Bauerlein). Out of the death of the bird comes the birth of a poet, and more specifically of a poem and of song.

The final line of the poem “The sea whisper’d me. ” (184), shows us the reality of the poet. Born from the experience of love echoed by its source, death. Death created a song of love and the sea confirmed the “original” death, or death as origin. These calls and responses are brought about by an awareness of the connection of nature to man. The poet, separated and yet tied to/created by nature, in turn creates a poem from love and death, one that reflects and rewrites this play of unity and separation, love and death, Eros and Thanatos.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem the theme of love and death is treated differently, even with a touch of humor. The perspective is of some experiencing death first hand. The narrator in Dickinson’s poem gets picked up in a carriage by “Death (who) is personified as a gentleman caller” (Melani) as if the narrator is going on a date. This aparent “light” tone nevertheless hides the seriousness of the event, the narrator and death begin their slow drive away from life as she begins to die.

This drive towards death (out poem) is the passage through life’s stages. First they pass a school “where Children strove/ At Recess” (9-10). This symbolizes the stage of innocence, the children who are playing do not know death yet and cannot see the passing carriage. They then pass “Fields of Gazing Grain” (11) which symbolizes maturity, as well as our connection to nature and the cycle of death and love. The relationship between the narrator in death and nature (life) begins to shift when the setting sun passes them instead of them passing the sun.

They are experiencing death, which points to a timeless eternity thus escaping the confines of measurable time. The cycle of life through the perception of time, the setting sun marking our days, points towards a space out of time. Their next stop, a house which is a gravesite in the ground, is a physical representation of that new space being created, as if she were between life and the afterlife. Dickinson ends the poem in a more abstract way using less specific visual imagery (Melani).

We know for certain that the narrator is dead because she states “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet/ Feels shorter than the Day” (21-22). Time has ceased to affect the narrator, and yet in her seemingly eternal present she can recreate through the poem the experience of death as both an experience of time (life) and it’s abolition (death). The forces of life and death define us, struggle within us, and conspire against us. The poet’s gaze perhaps saves us from ourselves, redeems us. I wonder if Freud wrote or read poetry…

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